Where art meets biology: How Anne Wright has bred some of the world’s most covetable snowdrops

At Dryad Nursery near York, botanical artist Anne Wright has been breeding some highly collectable snowdrops, writes Mary Keen. Photographs by Clive Nichols.

The rarification of snowdrops continues. Unusual snowdrops with hints of gold or splashes of green make very high prices, but big business has not yet cottoned onto producing these collectors’ treasures. It’s a cottage industry and Anne Wright in York, sole owner and breeder of Dryad Nursery, has been quietly getting on with creating some of the most covetable flowers around. A botanical artist with a degree in biology, she was brought up in a family of gardeners and found that by selling plants she could earn a useful income without leaving home.

Miniature narcissus are her first love — she still has 14,000 little daffodils that have to be repotted every year — but she began crossing snowdrops in 2006, with the aim of developing yellow hybrids with more vigour than any bulbs available at the time. Yellow colouring does occur in the wild, pollinated by bees rather than by a methodical plants person. ‘I’m not waiting for the bees,’ Mrs Wright says, but even hand pollination involves a long wait. From seed sowing to bulb selling takes about nine years, but, by crossing two different snowdrop species, nivalis and plicatus, she knew that her plants would have more vigour. Her first cross was with ‘Wendy’s Gold’ and sandersii, from which she had some useful and exciting results.

Snowdrop jewels: 1. ‘Dryad Gold Ribbon’, 2. ‘Dryad Artemis’, 3. ‘Dryad Blizzard’, 4. ‘Dryad Gold Sovereign’, 5. ‘Dryad Jupiter’, 6. ‘Dryad Zeus’, 7. ‘Dryad Gold Charm’, 8. ‘Dryad Sonata’, 9. ‘Dryad Demeter’, 10. ‘Dryad Echo’, 11. ‘Dryad Gold Star’, 12. ‘Dryad Venus’, 13. ‘Dryad Gold Ingot’. Photo: Clive Nichols

Ordinary gardeners plant snowdrops in the ground and reckon to increase them by division, but chipping the bulbs is a faster and more reliable way for the expert. Chipping a snowdrop bulb is done in the early summer when bulbs are dormant, usually in the first weeks of June. Amateur gardeners can try it, but should know that this meticulous work must be done in sterile conditions.

Methylated spirits or surgical spirits are used to wipe the knife and the bulb first, then each bulb is sliced in half vertically. (Some breeders cut the top quarter off the bulb first.) The tiny bulb can then be quartered and the quarters sliced in half again. In theory, it is possible to get to 32 slices, each with a tiny root plate attached, but it’s probably safer to stop at eight chips.

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How to make a new snowdrop: Anne Wright removes the petals of Galanthus ‘Kera’ before crossing it with G. ‘Dryad Gold Nugget’; Pollen from G. ‘Kera’, an Estonian cultivar, is gently knocked off the snowdrop’s anthers onto a sheet of metal foil; The filaments from G. ‘Dryad Gold Nugget’ are carefully removed with tweezers, leaving the pistil exposed; The pistil of G. ‘Dryad Gold Nugget’ is dipped into the previously harvested pollen from G. ‘Kera’. Photos: Clive Nichols

Micro chipping involves even more cuts. Whatever the number, the cut chips should then be dipped briefly in a fungicide solution before they go into vermiculite, in a sealed plastic container at a temperature of 20˚C. Some growers use plastic bags. Tiny bulbs should start to appear in the sealed chosen receptacle after about three months, although, before this magical happening, they will need regular inspection for fungal rot and any signs of rot must be removed. When the minute bulbs do appear, they should be potted into 9cm (3½in) pots and plunged into sand in a frame for the winter.

Mrs Wright uses professional-grade John Innes compost, mixed with Perlite, because grit is too heavy. It will be three years before the bulbs are ready to sell and the rarer Dryad snowdrops have often been offered on eBay. Listed last summer were her favourite ‘Dryad Gold Bullion’ at £80 and ‘Dryad Gold Star’ for £100, but, with time, even the priciest should get cheaper, because, as Mrs Wright says, her yellows chip very well. She now restricts the nursery sales to her own snowdrop cultivars, which will be offered each year.

‘Dryad Blizzard’.

In addition to the ‘Dryad Gold’ Galanthus strain, there is a bevy of what Mrs Wright calls pocs and ipocs. Poculiform snowdrops are cup shaped, with the inner segments as long as the outer ones. The inverse pocs (ipocs) have outer petals the same length as the inner ones. Of the pocs, she likes Galanthus ‘Dryad Blizzard’, a pure white beauty, which she describes as a very tall true poc.

Of the ipocs, G. ‘Dryad Demeter’ is her favourite, with clear green markings on inner and outer petals. Faint green markings — virescence — can occur naturally on ordinary snowdrops such as G. ‘Rosemary Burnham’, but are more pronounced on the ipocs, including the wellknown ‘Trym’. Mrs Wright’s hand-pollinating has created new distinct forms with lively green markings, which, says American gardener and galanthophile, David Culp, give us another crayon to paint with in the garden.

Dryad Venus

All Dryad snowdrops are only lifted to be repotted or replanted when they are dormant, rather than ‘in the green’, that is, after they have finished flowering. Mrs Wright says emphatically that bulbs need to be fully dormant and dry, with a tight tunic. In that case, they can safely stay out of the ground for four to six weeks, which means they can be posted to buyers. All her snowdrops and those of most serious collectors are grown in pond baskets, which are plunged in sand in frames and repotted every year. Once the leaves turn yellow, the bulbs are not watered. There are some varieties growing in the ground, but these are never divided, as it’s too much extra work. Amateur gardeners are generally advised that dividing Galanthus clumps about every three years keeps disease away, but the Wright bulbs continue to thrive without division.

As do all galanthophiles, Mrs Wright thinks snowdrops are invaluable, because they have such a long flowering season, from the earliest, such as Galanthus ‘Barnes’, to the latest, April-flowering G. ‘Fieldgate Superb’. Their ideal home is well-drained crumbly soil in sun or shade, in a spot that doesn’t dry out too much in summer. Most snowdrops are woodlanders, so leafmould is a useful mulch — although I have found that G. reginae-olgae does better in sun than shade. When winter light is low, snowdrops are even more beautiful, particularly with the sun behind you. This is especially true of the yellow-flowered varieties, which can catch the light in a magical way. Mrs Wright’s favourites are G. ‘Dryad Gold Sovereign’, earliest to flower and very long lasting. Ashwood nurseries occasionally list it. G. ‘Dryad Gold Bullion’ is shorter and later than G. ‘Gold Sovereign’. Whatever your choice, snowdrops will light up your winter.

Visit www.dryad-home.co.uk

Snowdrops worth waiting for, for connoisseurs

Galanthus ‘Dryad Gold Sovereign’ An elegant tall form with long-lasting flowers that can appear as early as late January

Galanthus ‘Dryad Gold Bullion’ (pictured) A later, more compact snowdrop that increases rapidly

Galanthus ‘Dryad Blizzard’ Pure white flowers, can be the most beautiful of all

Cheaper options, for regular gardeners

Galanthus ‘Spindlestone Surprise’ A lovely strong yellow hybrid

Galanthus ‘Angelique’ A beautiful white poculiform, which was a favourite of the late, great galanthophile Alan Street of Avon Bulbs Nursery

Galanthus plicatus ‘Three Ships’ AGM The snowdrop that is reliably out for Christmas and which increases well

Eythrope’s extraordinary snowdrops, and more winter treasures galore

Nowhere else can gardeners see rare named snowdrops growing in such measureless drifts as in the Rothschilds’ private garden at